Gary James' Interview With Dave Goddard of
Sometimes, all it takes is one song to be remembered for. For The Aquatones, that song was "You".
That song led to tour dates with the likes of Bobby Darin and Danny And The Juniors and TV appearances on American Bandstand and The Alan Freed Show. What a time it must've been!
Long-time member Dave Goddard takes us back with stories about the good old days of Rock 'n' Roll.
Q - Dave, before I begin, I must tell you, I used this book The Billboard Book Of American Singing Groups by Jay Warner for reference purposes.
A - Actually, I'm not familiar with that one, although I met Jay a few years ago and chided him about his reference to our "bland background" and of course Jay gave me grief in return. My one and only reference book on the subject of "oldies" music is Billboard Top 40 by Joel Whitburn. The story I like to tell about that is, I was alerted to the book's existence by my stockbroker. He's a kid from New Jersey, maybe ten years younger than I (am), but we've always kidded about listening to the same New York DJs while growing up. He faxed me the page about The Aquatones. I asked him where to get the book, and dog gone if he didn't buy it for me!
Q - Now, there's a stockbroker! Alright, Dave, on with the story of your life. Is it true that a record company executive from a small label, Fargo Records, spotted the group at a local show and signed them in 1958? Is that how it happened?
A - Pretty close! We had performed on a couple of Alan Frederick's Night Train Hops in 1957, on Long Island where we all lived, always hoping to get discovered and make a record. The hops didn't seem to be getting us anywhere. So, in the Fall of 1957, we decided to try entering local talent contests. Our second such contest; we didn't win anything in the first one, was Stairway To Stardom at Malverne High School, November 2nd, 1957. There was another Rock 'n' Roll vocal group on that show...The Sparktones, not The Sparkletones. We were harmonizing with them backstage, actually the school cafeteria during the show. We thought we both sounded good and wondered which one of us would win. When they announced the winners, neither group won a thing. So, we were packing up our instruments backstage, starting to discuss when the next talent show would be, when somebody alerted me to a man standing by the door, motioning for me to come over. I did, and the first words out of his mouth were "How'd you like to make a record?" That was Lou Fargo. He wasn't in the music business yet. He was a realtor. But, he wanted to get into it (the music business). His daughter attended Malverne High and had urged him to go to Stairway To Stardom. He almost missed our performance. He said he was "taking a cigar break in the lobby", came back into the auditorium just in time to catch the last few bars of "She's The One For Me", which wound up as the flip side of "You", liked what he heard and decided he wanted to sign us as our manager. No record company was in the picture at that point.
Q - So, let me clarify this: were The Aquatones strictly a vocal group or did any of the members play a musical instrument?
A - We started off as both a vocal and instrumental group, although the vocals were featured. We never, as the Aquatones or any other name we used for the group prior to selecting that name, aspired to be a dance band. We were more like a vocal group who played our own instruments. There were actually five of us in the group: Larry Vannata, Gene McCarthey, Lynne Nixon, Bob Boden and me. Larry played alto sax and tenor sax. Gene played tenor sax and clarinet. Bob played drums and I played piano. Lynne didn't play an instrument and Bob didn't sing. When Lou Fargo "discovered" us however, he was the one who wanted only a vocal group...no instruments. So, that's when we lost Bob, because he didn't sing.
Q - Your debut on Fargo Records was also the record label's debut. Your record was "You". Was that your only hit record?
A - "You" was the only one of our songs that made the charts. Only within the past ten years or less have I learned that our final release on Fargo Records, "Crazy For You", was listed in Billboard as "bubbling under the Top 100" at number 119. We were never aware at the time, 1961, that it even came close to being a hit. So, yes, we were a one hit wonder.
Q - How long did it take you to record "You"? Who wrote it and how many copies did it sell?
A - The released and hit version of "You" was recorded as a "dub", a demo record! As I recall, we did it in one take at Audio Sonic Studios in New York in December, 1957. The reason I think it was only one take was that Lynne's voice sounded so awesome in an echo chamber. Totally different from the way she'd sounded on our home recordings, that it blew us all away. And, I don't recall hearing on playback, two versions of Lynne singing the song that evening. Fargo's idea was that we'd follow up our dub session with a full band session in January of 1958. We recorded "She's The One For Me" that way, including Buddy Lucas on sax and David (Dave "Baby" Cortez) Clowney on piano. But, after several takes of "You" at that January session, Fargo called for a take with just piano and drums. He confided to me at the time, "You know why I did that, don't you? It's because I'm going to release the dub." Lou liked Lynne's voice better on the dub than at the real session. The problem was, that at the dub session, I played piano and Fargo had hired a drummer, I always like to say from off the street, to back us up and neither the drummer nor I were union musicians. So, it couldn't be known that the released record had non-union musicians playing on it. That's why Fargo had to have the piano and drums take at the real session, so he could always claim that was when the released version of "You" was recorded. Incidentally, as I've said, our initial relationship with Lou Fargo was that he was our manager. That was the first contract we signed with him. I know that Fargo's original idea was to shop our dubs around to find a record company that was interested in recording us. He said that if he couldn't find a willing record company, he'd start his own company. "I'll spell my name backwards or something" he said. Exactly when we knew that we'd be on Fargo Records and not some other label, I'm not certain. I think we knew by the time of the January session.
Larry wrote the song "You". I wrote "She's The One For Me". Fargo's plan was to push the up-tempo side, "She's The One For Me" in New York and the ballad side, "You" in Philadelphia. He told us that if either side broke, He'd have all DJs switch over and play the side that broke. But, because of that plan, Fargo suggested to Larry and me that we split writer's credits on both sides, so that one of us wouldn't get upset if the other guy's song was the hit side. We did that and that's how I've been scrounging royalties off Larry for close to fifty years!
I wish I knew how many copies the record sold. Lou Fargo had assigned the distribution rights to Ampar, a subsidiary of ABC Paramount. Fargo claimed to us that he never got paid by Ampar, at least not for a long time after the hit. He told us that he eventually wined and dined many of Ampar's individual distributors and was able to get these individuals to tell him how many each had sold by himself. Supposedly based on that information, Fargo came up with a total sales of something just over 150,000 copies, although he told us at the time he felt the record had sold more like 300,000 copies. But, he paid us our royalties based on the lower figure. Do I believe either figure? Did I have a choice? Heck, Fargo was our manager, our record company owner and our publisher. There definitely wasn't a system of checks and balances in place. I know we were introduced on at least one TV show as having a million selling record. Other people may speculate that we sold another number of copies, but all anything is, is pure speculation.
Q - You performed on a variety of TV shows... Alan Freed, Dick Clark, Dean Martin. Tell me what those experiences were like.
A - American Bandstand was an awesome experience! We were on that show twice, March and June of 1958, the second time to promote our second record. Unfortunately, I personally didn't watch much TV at that time in my life, so I wasn't as aware as the other group members of the kid dancers on that show who were stars in their own right. But meeting Dick was great. Where we really got to meet him was when we were on his Saturday night show out of New York in April, 1958. Rehearsals were in the morning and when one act was rehearsing, Dick would move around the auditorium, talking to the other acts. My impression of him was that he was just as nice as he seemed on TV. Another memory I have from that show was getting out of the theatre. Apparently, there was a huge mob of kids out in front of the theatre, so Lou Fargo hailed us a cab while we waited inside. When the cab came to the curb, Fargo said "come on", and we raced out the stage door, down an alleyway and across the sidewalk to the cab. About halfway across the sidewalk, and New York sidewalks are pretty wide, I heard some gal scream "There they are!" and this mob of kids started running our way. They were only maybe fifty feet away to start with. So, we dove into the cab! I whacked the heck out of my elbow on the cab door, I remember. And of course, the kids swarmed all over the cab because we were standing still for awhile, stuck in New York traffic on a Saturday night!
My memories of being on a Dean Martin telethon are less clear. The one thing I do remember was that Dean did speak to us one time. We were crossing the stage in front of where he was sitting and he waved at us and said "Hello", in what sounded like a drunken voice. It was an act, I'm pretty sure. He had an image to maintain.
Alan Freed. Oh, yes! He had a show on a local New York TV station the Summer of 1958 and we were on his show in July to promote our second record. I had met Alan about three years previously, soon after he'd come to New York. A small group of kids, including me, from my high school had gone into the city to see the GM Motorama. After we'd had our fill of that, one of the guys suggested we go over to the WINS studio and see if we could meet Alan. He wasn't there when we arrived, his show started at 7 PM as I recall, but he came in soon thereafter. I remember him as being rather quiet. He did greet us, but spent most of his time reading his mail. But, as we were leaving and he was on the air, he grinned and waved at us while pounding on his Queens phone book! As we were walking past the studio, a totally different person on the air. Anyway, when we did his TV show, I mentioned that meeting during a commercial break and Alan asked me to tell the story once we got back 'live'. As I was standing there talking to Alan on 'live' TV, I could see the monitor and they zoomed in for a close-up of me. How I wish they didn't re-use videotapes in those days and I could have a copy of that show!
Q - You performed on the same bill as Bobby Darin, The Shirelles and Danny And The Juniors. What was Bobby Darin like?
A - You got two out of three right! We never performed on the same bill as The Shirelles, unless maybe it was a lip-sync show where you just get out there, do your thing and leave, never really knowing who else was on the show. About Bobby Darin, I'm sorry to say I don't recall ever talking to him. We were on a Martin Block telethon of some kind; Martin was a long standing New York DJ...Make Believe Ballroom show and I think this was probably around March on 1958, because our record "You" was starting to make some noise, but it wasn't really a hit yet. Anyway, we were looking through the show program at which acts would be there and we saw a picture of this hoody-looking guy with long hair and his collar turned up, like "hoods" used to do in those days. And we said to each other, "Who is this hood named Bobby Darin?" According to Whitburn's book, "Splish Splash" didn't hit the charts until June, 1958, so at the time of Block's show, Bobby was even more unknown than we were. Anyway, I don't recall talking to him either then or at the only other time we were on the same bill, the Saylorsburg Show in July. But, in 1966, when I finished college and was driving out to California for my first real job, I spent a night in Reno, Nevada and Bobby was singing at one of the casinos. I thought about going to his show, but I guess I figured I should start getting a paycheck first, and besides, I thought, I can always catch him later. Yeah, like I was going to see Elvis in Las Vegas during all the years I lived in Los Angeles. I never saw as a member of the audience, either Bobby or Elvis perform 'live'. Stupid on my part.
When we were on the Dick Clark Saturday night show, the one show we did where we actually had some time in rehearsal and therefore weren't just onstage and then gone, the other acts were David Seville, The Four Aces and Carl Perkins, unless I'm forgetting somebody. And, the only one of those we even said hello to was Carl Perkins. I remember he told us his wife had made the sport coat he was wearing.
I think the reason we didn't get to know more singers was that we never really toured. Our parents were very emphatic with Lou Fargo - Their kid's education comes first! Larry, Lynne and I were in high school. Larry and I were seniors at the time. So we were never really out on the road. We did a show in Rockville, Connecticut, back when nobody had heard of Gene Pitney, another in Baltimore and probably some others that I can't think of. Except for that July 4th weekend I mentioned, I can't recall a single other act that was on the show with us. We just drove to the venue, did our act and drove home. Lou Fargo drove us to Rockville; my father drove us to Baltimore. We drove Gene's parents car to Toms River and Saylorsburg and we took the train or occasionally a plane to most of the TV shows.
There is one incident that sticks in my mind, however and it doesn't have a thing to do with other singers, but it does have something to do with the fans, notably teenage girls of the day. We did a show somewhere in New Jersey one time, probably May or June of 1958. It seems to me they had a big dance hall somehow associated with a motel, or more like cabins, the way motels used to be. I also seem to recall that I played the piano onstage that day, and I think I did so for "Light Up The Sky". And, if I'm right, it was one of the very few times we ever sang that song in public, at least after we'd had the hit record. Anyway, when we were onstage, the girls were screaming for us to toss souvenirs into the audience. I know we guys lost our jacket-pocket handkerchiefs that day. Not sure what else we threw out to the crowd. Anyway, as we were leaving and walking across the parking lot to our car, I don't remember whose car, but we weren't with one of our parents or Lou Fargo that day, three teenage girls came out on the porch surrounding the dance hall and started begging us to throw them some kind of souvenir. Well, we had nothing left. Whatever we'd had, we'd already thrown into the crowd in the dance hall. I was just finishing smoking a cigarette at the time and without thinking about it, I flicked the butt over my shoulder. And let me tell you, those three girls raced out into the parking lot to pick it up!
Q - Where does this group perform today? And do you have any recently recorded product out?
A - I could go on and on about that, but I'll try not to. The original group is not together, although Larry, Gene and I see each other fairly often, given our geographical separation. Lynne passed away early in 2001, but at least I'd gotten to see her in 1999 when I was on Long Island for a high school reunion. She was ill even then, but we had a wonderful visit. I had absolutely no intention of trying to get The Aquatones back together until by chance I heard a local Louisville gal singer around Christmas time, 1998, whose voice reminded me a lot of Lynne's. Lynne no longer sang, since sometime in the 1970s I guess. She just had no interest in music any more. Even then, I thought it was just a curiosity that she sounded a lot like Lynne. But, over the next year, I began to meet, mostly by e-mails, a group of doo-wop fans who first made me feel very flattered by their memories of our music and second, kept encouraging me to get the group back together. So, that Christmas (1999) I spoke to that singer who was again singing at the dinner-dance my realtor holds every year at that time. I asked her, Colette Delaney, if she'd be interested in singing with a new version of The Aquatones and to my delight, she was.
So we wound up making a CD in 2001 based on several demo recordings Colette and I had made during the year 2000. And my thanks go out to my recent friend Dick Plotkin, who re-activated a record label, Debra Records, he'd had in the late 1950s, in order to make our CD. When it came time to go into the studio, I tried to get Gene and Larry to join us. Gene agreed. Larry declined because he's been a musician all his life. He knew how much work was involved and he's retired and lives 800 miles away from me. So, I got another old friend to pinch hit, but the resulting recordings made it clear that we needed to rehearse more than we'd been able to, with everybody except Colette and me, from out of state. So, at Dick's urging, I convinced two local friends, Rich Hornung and Paul King to join the group for performances. And what performances we had! Our first ever concert was in March 2002, in front of about as friendly an audience as you could find, a ladies group at the church that Rich, Paul and I attend. Our second concert however, was less than two months later, when we were videotaped at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh for the upcoming PBS TV Special, Red, White and Rock. Our next concert was in October 2002 in a Richard Nader show at Madison Square Garden. We've done several other national shows, including the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford (Hartford) Connecticut and the Tilles Center at Long Island University. That show was headlined by Chubby Checker. We've done local shows, some large, some small.
Without question our invitation to appear on PBS TV was greatly influenced by the CD we made in 2001. So, I'll always be grateful to Dick for getting that one released. However, that CD didn't include the voices or the pictures of our two new group members, Rich and Paul. So, we made a major effort to get a new CD on the market that did not represent the way we are today. And, that effort has generated more frustration than I could have believed possible. Suffice it to say that we started recording in September 2003, put down the vocal tracks for 27 songs in two recording sessions over a weekend. We followed it up with more vocal recordings in November 2004 and all this time we were focusing more on learning the songs Dick wanted us to record than on songs and choreography we could do at concerts. We added 17 additional recordings for a Christmas CD, which Dick wanted, in August 2005 and Debra Records has just released 3 new CDs by The Aquatones in late 2006, early 2007. So, there has been a rather major break in the action for us as far as concerts are concerned, partly because we kept hoping for years that our new CD would be out soon and we could use that to jump-start more concert work. But hey, at least that is now over, so we're hoping to get back into more concert work in 2007. But, the other issue is that The Aquatones, the current version, are not a bunch of old, retired guys. All of us have day jobs. Colette not only has a young daughter, but is also a professional singer, does lots of stage musicals and if we don't have gigs lined up with The Aquatones, she's likely to be out of commission for weeks on end doing a play. But, we're hopeful that with new CDs finally released, we can now get back to doing more concert work. And I will say, based on over 50 years experience with vocal group harmony, the original Aquatones started in the Fall of 1956, that this current group has an amazingly good sound and I think audiences will love us if they ever get to hear us again.